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The charms of post-retirement Brahms enthral Stephen Johnson as he names the best recordings of the German’s late chamber masterpiece
Stephen Johnson names the best recordings of Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet; plus similar works to try next
In 1890, the 57-year-old Brahms announced his retirement: the freshly completed Second String Quintet Op. 111 was, he said, to be his last work. It would have made a marvellously warm and affirmative conclusion to a composing career that had begun the dark and turbulent depths of Romantic Sturm und Drang.
But then, in March the following year, Brahms made a return visit to Meiningen to hear its famous orchestra. This time he was struck by the playing of the principal clarinettist, Richard Mühlfeld. It wasn’t just the polish and assurance of Mühlfeld’s playing that impressed him: there was something uniquely vocal about it, something Brahms found beguilingly and movingly ‘feminine’ – so much so that before long he had nicknamed his new friend ‘Fräulein Klarinette’. It also put paid to any notions of permanent retirement. Brahms’s musical imagination was soon working at full stretch again, and in a remarkably short time he had composed two major chamber works for Mühlfeld: the Clarinet Trio, for clarinet, cello and piano, and this Clarinet Quintet, for clarinet and string quartet. Two clarinet sonatas were to follow in 1894.
Fine as the Trio is (see p71), it’s the Clarinet Quintet that quickly established itself as a firm favourite among lovers of chamber music. It’s easy to see why.
The Quintet has the scale and emotional range of Brahms’s symphonies, but the manner is much more intimate and lyrical, closer to that of the more delicate chamber works, the best of the songs and the exquisite late solo piano pieces. The private Brahms, the sensitive, lonely melancholic, carefully concealed in public behind barbed humour and that imposing patrician beard, speaks to us directly here, as though Brahms was no longer talking to an audience, but to trusted friends.
Aching nostalgia, sometimes veering over into anger or protest, a painful sense of something cherished and lost, wry humour and finally a kind of sad serenity – all these emerge in this music with a directness that can occasionally be
The Clarinet Quintet has the scale and emotional range of Brahms’s symphonies
surprising. Most striking in this respect is the second movement’s wild, quasiimprovisatory climax – a passage that reminds us how much Brahms loved ★ungarian folk music, and which hints that he may also have enjoyed hearing a Jewish Klezmer band or two.
The sheer sound of the ensemble is crucial too. The clarinet is beautifully suited to Brahms’s artistic and emotional needs: although it can soar high and sing out elegantly in its bright soprano register, its dark, chocolate-toned lower register is one of its most appealing features, and it adds to this music’s autumnal, shadowy character. At the same time, the strong contrast in tone and expressive character between the clarinet and the four strings means that they can interact and engage in close dialogue with each other without losing any sense of distinct personality.
Introspective though much of this music may be, there is also great tenderness. As Brahms’s friend, the musicologist Eusebius Mandyczewski, put it, ‘It is as though the instruments were in love with each other’. There’s also something else, a quality not always readily associated with Brahms – playfulness. It was there in the man himself, as his friends testify, but in performance in more recent times there’s been a tendency to lose sight of it. Perhaps we have become too fixated on opulent depth of sound, long suave lines and oratorical grandeur. If so, that’s very much our loss.
The Quintet’s opening sets the overall tone deftly with a kind of ★aydn-ish joke: for a moment we could be in a bright, carefree D major, but then the harmony twists into the sombre home key of B minor – it can be like watching a smile fade. The contrast between those two emotional states pervades the first movement, and it can also be felt in the not entirely breezy third movement and the variation finale. But the heart of the work is the Adagio, which like the slow movement of Mozart’s great Clarinet Quintet makes the major mode seem more truly heartbreaking than the traditionally doleful minor. This is the mood Edward Elgar (an admirer of Brahms) summed up beautifully as ‘smiling with a sigh’. But is it a deep, resigned sigh, or is the smile genuine too? That, among other things, is what a good performance should be able to help us decide.
Turn the page to discover the best recordings of Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet